Five storylines to follow at Blackhawks 2019 training camp

Five storylines to follow at Blackhawks 2019 training camp

Here are five storylines to follow at Blackhawks training camp, which begins Friday at Fifth Third Arena:

1. Is Kirby Dach NHL ready?

Hours after the Blackhawks drafted Dach with the No. 3 overall pick in June, both the team and player acknowledged that making the team out of training camp as soon as the 2019-20 season wasn't out of the realm of possibility. GM Stan Bowman said they're going to give him every chance to prove he belongs and Dach said he wants to make the decision as difficult as possible on management to keep him off the 23-man roster.

The journey begins on Friday and it's not out of the question to think Dach can make the roster. The first four overall picks in 2018 (Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Brady Tkachuk) all broke into the NHL last season and stayed there for the whole year. On the flip side, Miro Heiskanen and Elias Pettersson, both of whom were taken in the Top 5 of the 2017 NHL Draft, benefited from another year of development overseas before cracking the NHL on a full-time basis and were two of the top rookies last season, with Pettersson taking home the Calder Trophy.

The question will really come down to what role Dach would play over the course of an 82-game season. There's a clear opening at third-line center that he could slide in to, but sheltering him there may not be the best idea because he's someone who's used to playing top minutes and in all situations. The Blackhawks want him to flourish as an NHL player, not just survive.

The Blackhawks could also go the route of letting Dach play in the first nine games of the regular season before deciding what to do with him. If he plays in fewer than 10 games, his entry-level contract will slide and kick in during the 2020-21 season. But that's a bridge that could be crossed later on in training camp.

2. How will Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner dynamic work?

It's been more than two months since the Blackhawks signed Vezina Trophy finalist Lehner to a one-year deal to form what could be the most formidable 1-2 punch in the NHL if both goalies can stay healthy. Lehner has already voiced his excitement level for working with Crawford and said he didn't come to Chicago to take anyone's job. We'll here from Crawford for the first time on Friday and how he expects the dynamic to work.

But there's an interesting wrinkle in this situation: Crawford and Lehner are both playing for new contracts next season and they could be competing for the same spot. Crawford has two Stanley Cups on his resume, but he will be 35 next summer and his concussion issues have been well documented. Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season and is looking to turn in another strong season in hopes of securing a long-term deal.

As we go into training camp, it feels like this will be close to a 50/50 split or somewhere around that. But injuries happen and if one goalie is playing better than the other, Jeremy Colliton won't be hesitant to play the hot hand.

3. What could the lines look like?

Training camp is going to be fascinating because not only are there positions battles to follow, there are also roles, too.

If Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews start on the first line together, who is going to be their left winger? And if Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome make up two-thirds of the second line, who could be their right winger?

Other questions: What will the third line look like? And who will center it? Is Brandon Saad better suited on the third line or in a top-six role? Where will Andrew Shaw be slotted to start the season?

Colliton has a bunch of new toys up front, which include Ryan Carpenter, Dominik Kubalik, Alex Nylander, Shaw and Zack Smith to name a few. He’s certainly going to have options all season long and he likes it that way.

4. Have the Blackhawks done enough to address defensive issues?

The Blackhawks’ glaring weak spot in 2018-19 was their defense, hands down. They allowed the second-most goals, second-most scoring chances, most high-danger chances and had the worst penalty kill unit in the league. Addressing those issues was priority No. 1 this summer.

But did they do enough?

The Blackhawks acquired defensive-minded defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to help shore up that area, added Carpenter and Smith to do the same up front and hired assistant coaches Marc Crawford and Tomas Mitell to oversee things. The roster surely looks different from last season, but is it better defensively?

5. Which darkhorse candidate could emerge from camp?

Usually there are one or two players who stand out in camp and emerge as candidates to crack the Opening Day lineup when they perhaps had an outside chance to start. We’re not sure whether he qualifies as a darkhorse, but Dominik Kubalik is someone who could surprise some people this season and get a big role early on.

Bowman said during exit interviews that they expect Kubalik to be on the roster this coming season and it’s really a matter of what role he’ll play. Obviously a lot has changed since then, but the organization has high hopes for him and believes he could be a sneaky good offensive player. Keep an eye on him.

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Alex DeBrincat joins the Blackhawks All-Decade Team


Alex DeBrincat joins the Blackhawks All-Decade Team

Throughout the 2019-20 season, NBC Sports Chicago will be unveiling its Blackhawks All-Decade Team. The roster will feature the 14 forwards, 7 defensemen and two goaltenders that made the biggest impact on the franchise from the 2010 through 2019 seasons.

Less than two and a half seasons was all we needed to see from Alex DeBrincat, a highly-skilled and crafty winger for the Blackhawks, who's usually looking to shoot instead of pass. 

DeBrincat was one of the biggest steals from the NHL Draft in recent years. The Hawks taking him in the second round, No. 39 overall, of the 2016 draft changed the way teams selected players.

There's been less hesitation for GMs to pick forwards around DeBrincat's height (5-foot-7) if they're point-producing machines with strong vision and skating. Right out of the gate, the 21-year-old recorded 28 goals for his rookie campaign during the 2017-18 season and followed it up with 41 last year.

"The Cat" has seen a dip in production tallying 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 32 games so far this season, but expect that to pick up.

DeBrincat has utilized his size in being able to sneak by defensemen and find open areas in the offensive zone like the left circle, where he's rifled in a lot of his goals with the Hawks. The Farmington Hills, Mich. native has 151 points (77 goals, 74 assists) in 196 games with Chicago.

He hasn't hoisted the cup or even played one playoff game yet with the Blackhawks, but if/when he does reach the postseason in his career, he'll be a reason why his team got there and will surely be a difference maker.

Alex's chemistry (and interesting friendship) with old Erie Otter (OHL) pal Dylan Strome, as well as with Patrick Kane, amplify the forward's strengths and make him even more fun to watch. 

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Struggling Blackhawks still trying to find a path forward


Struggling Blackhawks still trying to find a path forward

ST. LOUIS — One year ago today, the Blackhawks were enjoying an off-day after snapping their second eight-game losing streak of the season with a 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Adjustments were still being made under new head coach Jeremy Colliton, but there was at least some optimism that light would be at the end of the tunnel once they all got on the same page.

The Blackhawks have an off-day on Friday, but they’re in a much different place this time around. And not in a good way.

After losing for the ninth time in 12 games (3-7-2) and third straight (0-2-1), the Blackhawks are making standings watching irrelevant in Chicago in a year where it shouldn’t be. Their playoff chances are slipping away quicker than an odd-man rush and nobody wants to start looking ahead to the 2020 NHL Draft class because they shouldn’t be in this position again.

The inconsistency issues are real, the injuries continue to mount, the losses are getting uglier and the schedule is only getting tougher. The Blackhawks aren’t just losing hockey games. They’re not even giving themselves a chance. 

In their last six losses, the Blackhawks have been outscored 29-11 for a minus-18 goal differential. They’ve given up at least five goals in four of them and have one regulation win since Nov. 17.

And it’s hard to see how it can get better.

The easiest in-season change to make when a team with playoff expectations is underperforming is to change the voice and message the players are listening to. But the Blackhawks played that card last season.

In 2015-16, the Blackhawks deservedly earned a pass for running out of gas in the first round after coming off a season in which they captured a third Stanley Cup in six years.

In 2016-17, the Blackhawks called being swept in the first round by Nashville as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference a "wake-up call" and promised changes.

In 2017-18, the Blackhawks pointed to Corey Crawford’s season-ending injury in December as a reason for their second-half spiral.

In 2018-19, the Blackhawks preached patience after making a coaching change for the first time in 10 years.

In 2019-20, there is no excuse. The Blackhawks had another long offseason to get it right and Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were coming off career statistical seasons at age 30. The roster is better but the product on the ice hasn’t changed.

The tide eventually might turn for the Blackhawks, but right now it's difficult to see a path for how it will.

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